LUXEMBOURG - Some European lawmakers urged the EU on Monday to consider stripping Hungary of its voting rights to punish it for weakening democracy and the rule of law, a move which prompted a swift rebuke from Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
The European Parliament's Civil Liberties committee (LIBE) voted in favor of triggering a formal punitive procedure, citing concerns about the independence of the judiciary, freedom of expression, the rights of minorities, and treatment of migrants and refugees in Hungary.
The European Parliament as a whole is expected to endorse the proposal in September but it is unlikely to lead to any swift action against Hungary as that would require all other EU states to back the idea.
But the LIBE move highlighted a widening rift between the liberal EU founders and Hungary - part of a grouping of newer, eastern member states which are now run by nationalist eurosceptics and have resisted an EU push to host asylum seekers.
Orban dismissed the committee's vote as an attempt to pressure Hungary to change its policies on migration, state news agency MTI reported.
"But, given that Hungarian voters have already made their decision about this issue, there is nothing to discuss," he said, according to MTI.
Orban's Fidesz party won by a landslide in elections last April, partly on a wave of support for his hardline migration policies, including a refusal to take in anyone from the new arrivals from the Middle East and North Africa.
During his eight years in power, Orban has increasingly put pressure on courts, media and non-government groups. Though the EU has often protested, it has largely failed to stop him in what his critics denounce as a growing authoritarian drive.
Orban's other nationalist, eurosceptic ally Poland would most likely shield Budapest from any sanctions even if the Article 7 punitive procedure was launched against Hungary.
Orban has made clear he would block any such move against Warsaw, which has been at odds with the bloc for more than two years over its own judicial reforms that critics say weaken courts and the rule of law in the largest ex-communist EU state.
Twenty-eight EU ministers will discuss their concerns about Poland again on Tuesday at a session in Luxembourg.
EU leaders are preparing to discuss immigration policy in Brussels on Thursday and Friday, seeking to heal a deep division in a bloc already badly shaken by Brexit.